Authors: Teresa Noelle Roberts
This one’s for Heather, my favorite nutty artist with a business plan—and, happily, a husband who reminds her to eat.
And for my mother, who taught me about tasting music, and who experiences color more viscerally than anyone I know. (The color she’s experiencing now may be red in the face. But I promise there’s a happy-ever-after, Mom!) Special thanks to Tucker Le for EMT advice. But most of all, this one’s for Jeff. Now and always.
Drake Matthews fumbled the front door open, cursing the doorbell’s interruption to his train of thought.
A small, striking woman with crazy multicolored hair stood in his doorway. He stopped cursing. He’d get back on his train of thought, but he wasn’t about to pretend he was upset to see a gorgeous woman on his porch, even at eight in the morning on Saturday. Even if she was a stranger and his brain was too lost in mathematics to figure out why she was there. He didn’t remember an appointment. Then again, at this stage in the process of writing a paper, he might not remember his own birthday.
The woman spoke, her voice rich, marked with the flat vowels of a local country girl. “I’m here about the apartment on Craigslist. Jen Kessler. We e-mailed back and forth.” Jen extended a small, ringless hand.
Drake took her hand and was shocked by how firm her grip felt considering how little she was. Small but not frail. Her arms were well muscled for someone her size, her legs not just pretty but strong-looking. She wore a green tank top and bright yellow bike shorts topped with a short black net skirt that looked like a child’s ballerina costume. To complete the little-girl-in-costume effect, the skirt was printed with silver glittery stars. On someone else, the outfit would have looked stupid, but it worked for her, as if she was dressed up in honor of a beautiful day that felt more like June in Atlanta than mid-April in Ithaca, when the more typical weather was cold rain or wet snow.
He held Jen’s hand a bit too long as he studied her, hoping that his gray-rimmed nerd glasses made it look like he was just socially awkward, not fascinated. Her nails were short and square, her hands rough, as if she worked with them a lot. Her eyes were the bright, clear green of spring leaves. Her chin-length red curls, streaked with Crayola yellow and orange that made her look like a living flame, were disheveled. Probably from biking here without a helmet, since he saw a bright blue Schwinn in the driveway, but no helmet attached to it or in Jen’s hand. He had to fight the inappropriate urge to smooth that wild hair just to see how it felt, and an equally inappropriate urge to tell her she should wear a helmet.
She wasn’t his to touch, wasn’t his to direct. Wasn’t even his friend. He could pretend to get a bit of fluff out of a friend’s hair or bug her about her bad bike-safety habits. Jen was a complete stranger, and even if she wasn’t, she might end up as his tenant, which probably ruled out becoming his sub. His cock hoped otherwise, but it would open the door to all kinds of drama, and Drake didn’t like drama.
“I was expecting you this afternoon,” Drake said, trying to sound all business, even though he was rattled, pulled too quickly from his work, pulled too quickly into wanting this woman he’d just met.
His attempt at dignity was foiled when he realized he was wearing the same ratty running shorts he’d slept in and an ancient Daffy Duck T-shirt with a barbecue-sauce stain.
Jen turned pink. “Is this a bad time? I know we’d talked about two, but I realized I was in the neighborhood, and your lights were on and…I can come back. I’m getting off my shift at Staff of Life Bakery and on my way to my studio, but it’s early for Saturday if you don’t work an overnight on Friday.”
Drake had been up since five, woken by equations swirling in his head and ideas for his paper, but he didn’t respond immediately. He liked seeing her off-balance. She was adorable, with her multicolored hair and big eyes, and even cuter flustered. He could all too easily imagine her caught in his coils, deep in some headfuck.
Or being deeply fucked.
Damn, he’d been way too busy this past semester. Once it was over, he needed to get back to New York and the scene more regularly, if he was getting this lost in fantasies about some woman he’d just met. He shook himself mentally and put on his affable-academic voice. “You’re here, so you might as well come in. The apartment’s more presentable than I am.”
She smiled and looked up at him with those startling green eyes. “You look fine,” she said, and her words carried a lot more than simple reassurance.
He wasn’t the only one who liked what he saw.
Which was either good or very, very bad.
Or maybe both.
As he led Jen into the house and through his living room and into the hallway, he kept talking. “The apartment has its own entrance in the back, but I don’t think anyone’s used it in decades. The door’s jammed shut. I have someone coming in on Monday to fix it.”
“So I won’t get to intrude on your space a few times a day. Too bad.” She grinned in a way that went right to his crotch.
Maybe he should put off getting that back door to the apartment fixed. He wouldn’t mind her intruding on his space.
He liked the idea way too much for his own comfort. Having her within flirting range was one thing. It wouldn’t hurt to get to know Jen better and see if she shared his proclivity for BDSM, dominance and submission, or was at least curious about such things. But having her in and out of his life all the time might be too much for his nerves to take without doing something regrettable.
Like tying Jen up and spanking her just to see how she’d react.
Keeping his voice as cool as he could manage under the flood of provocative images inundating his brain, he gestured and said, “The stairs to the apartment are this way.”
Jen was too distracted by the long, lean drink of adorably flustered academic to really look around the main part of the house, though she’d taken in high ceilings and dark woodwork and white walls. They probably didn’t suit the period of the house but made the rooms look big and bright and uncluttered.
uncluttered. Drake had almost no furniture in the room most people would use for a living room, for instance, and no art or photographs except for a large, striking framed poster, something that looked like an extreme close-up of a flower’s center. Maybe he’d just moved in himself or was one of those guys who figured they were too old for posters of sports heroes and half-naked actresses (though in Drake’s case, she’d bet the posters were Einstein, Stephen Hawking and science-fiction heroines with guns) but hadn’t figured out what they wanted instead.
Nice Victorian house with good lines, but she’d spotted nothing that made her heart skip a beat.
Other than the homeowner, with his serious gray glasses and slept-in clothes, his big gray eyes, his short-cropped sandy hair and tidy beard, prematurely sprinkled with sexy silver. And his absolutely gorgeous body, far more athletic than she’d expected from someone whose e-mail address revealed he taught in the math department at Cornell. She’d googled him after she’d figured that out, and seen a picture of a good-looking if overly serious face on a department staff page, but she hadn’t begun to imagine what the rest of him looked like. And the assessment of her friend Ryoko’s husband, who worked in IT at Cornell—
“Dr. Matthews is a good guy. Supposed to be a great teacher, and he’s pretty sensible for an honest-to-God genius”—
had inspired an image of a guy she could trust, but also one who might be a chubby geek with an attractive face.
She prided herself on a good visual imagination, but she’d fallen far short in this case. The picture on the Web had been attractive in a nerdy way. The real man was smoking.
Then she entered the apartment and gasped in delight. This place was enough to distract her from her lecherous assessment of Drake Matthews and incite a case of home-lust almost as bad as the case of lust-lust he was provoking. She’d figured it would be small and shabby and dull, based on the low rent, but the price and convenient location made up for a lot. She was delighted to find she was wrong about the shabby and dull part. Sure, the apartment wasn’t large, but it was a slice of bright, high-ceilinged, nicely proportioned heaven. The small front room was painted a weird 1970s’ gold—she could live with it, but she’d definitely ask if she could paint when she had time. The hardwood floor showed the ghost of a now-missing eight-by-ten rug, but the room had plenty of windows, and everything looked well maintained and immaculate. And even her initial reaction to the dubious color vanished from her mind when she saw the next room.
“It has a turret? An honest-to-God turret with a stained glass window?” She’d noticed the tower from the outside, of course—it was hard to miss—but she’d assumed it was in the main part of the house and she’d have to settle for living in a building that had a romantic Victorian tower, which was cool in itself. Now it looked like she might actually be living
“An uninsulated turret with a drafty stained glass window that has loose, cracked panes. My great-aunt and her partner used this room for cold storage.” He smiled. “I remember Marian and Judith—she was my aunt’s partner—fussing over the squash and apples in here. Of course, all the windows in this beautiful barn are old and drafty. I need to replace them eventually. Part of the reason I’m renting the apartment. Custom windows aren’t cheap.”
“Don’t you dare replace the stained glass! It’s art.”
For a second, Drake went distant, his gray eyes looking like the lake on a stormy winter day. He drew himself up stiff, which had the benefit of emphasizing that he was tall and well-built.
Uh-oh. Professor Hot-Stuff doesn’t like to be ordered around, and I probably sounded bitchy. Hope I didn’t lose my shot at the apartment.
She decided to use a softer approach. “Sorry for my vehemence, but I’m a glass artist, and the window’s special. Not Tiffany or anything, but good nineteenth-century work. And look at the way the stained glass piece echoes the real lake view you get from the other window.”
“Pretty cool,” Drake acknowledged.
“If you’d like, I can stabilize the panes and replace those couple of broken pieces. I can’t promise I can match the color exactly, but I’ll come close, and it’ll look better than a hole. Both will cut down on the drafts. I’m not primarily a stained glass person, but I know how to do it.”
“I looked on the Internet to see how to fix it, but I don’t have the skills to do it myself, and I hadn’t gotten around to trying to find a professional. Luckily, one found me.” Professor Hot-Stuff’s face softened into a smile, and she couldn’t help smiling with him. She had a feeling that he didn’t use that smile a lot, that he deliberately pretended he was stern and severe.
Probably it worked if you didn’t know he liked Daffy Duck and obviously loved the great-aunts who’d raised him.
“I’m not a stained glass restorer. If I was, I’d charge you a small fortune.”
“As I said, I decided to rent the apartment to you…to a tenant,” he corrected himself quickly, “so I can get some work done on the house, including upgrading the windows. I think Great-Aunt Marian would come back to haunt me if I got rid of the stained glass, and I don’t even believe in ghosts. How about I knock off the security deposit and give you half off your first month’s rent to work on the window?” He paused. “That is, if you want the place.”
“That’s too much!”
He shook his head. “Assuming you’re not the kind of person who trashes apartments and would get the security back—and I’m taking a chance you are—I think it’s less than I’d pay a restorer. Meanwhile, it helps your cash flow. We both win.”
“Yes, and I definitely want the apartment. But don’t you need to check my references and stuff?” She wasn’t sure why she reminded him, other than innate honesty. He clearly hadn’t done the landlord thing before.
“Already did. In your first e-mail, you’d mentioned where you were living now. Your housemates said you paid your rent on time and were quiet and pretty great to have around.”
“I’d still be there, except they’ve got a baby on the way, and they need the room.”
“That’s what they said, and that’s good enough for me. But you should probably see the rest of the place before you decide.”
The turret had totally sold her, and the offer of reduced rent did the rest.
Face it, Professor Hot-Stuff as a neighbor didn’t hurt either. But she gladly followed Drake through the rest of the small space and decided she liked what she saw. The kitchen was tiny and dated. Still, it was functional—small but well planned for cooking. The turquoise-and-brown color combination—1950s, she thought—was actually retro cool. The bathroom was plain white, with old-fashioned black-and-white tiles on the floor, but had an actual claw-foot tub, which made up for being cramped and bland. And the one bedroom, with its soothing pale blue walls, was more than large enough for her needs.